Fleckenstein, Kristie S., Fred Johnson, and Jackie Grutsch McKinney. “A Portable Ecology:  Supporting New Media Writing and Laptop-Ready Pedagogy.” Technological Ecologies and Sustainability. Eds. Selfe, Dickie, Danielle DeVoss and Heide McKee. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2009. Print.


In this chapter, we argue for the value of systemically attuned thinking in planning, implementing, and supporting curricula and infrastructure for a 21st-century writing program. We focus specifically on the development of laptop classrooms and new media pedagogy at Ball State University, a mid-sized state institution in the Midwest. We show how our successes in transforming classrooms, modernizing our writing center, and offering faculty development evolved out of a series of missteps,miscommunications, and failures that taught us to think in holistic ways about the emergence of institutional change.

Our narrative unfolds in three steps. First, informed by Gregory Bateson’s ecology of the mind, we offer and illustrate three characteristics of systemically attuned thinking: see the complex web, understand news of difference, and emerge into change. Then we offer insights into technological sustainability, highlighting the role of faculty support and writing center collaboration. Finally, we conclude with three guidelines for enacting technological change in writing programs: think spatially, think rhetorically, and think temporally.

  • The authors begin by noting that the new media writing initiative at Ball State University created the opportunity to support a “laptop-ready pedagogy”. . . a mixed method approach to pedagogy that taught the importance and legitimacy of multiple modes of composition. The authors argue that by adopting Bateson’s “systems thinking” or holistically approaching the situation they were more successfully able to negotiate the demands of acquiring the $$$ to facilitate a laptop-ready pedagogy.
  • The authors locate their work at Ball State and in this article as a response to the “when” of New Media writing – a “new” first described by DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill (2005) in describing the institutional considerations necessary to develop writing programs that traffic in new media composition.  The authors further adopt the “ecological” perspective when describing the interdependencies of individuals, departments, institutions, and the broader world in order to more accurately describe how their orientation privileges neither the individual or the institution.
  • Bateson’s ‘ecology of mind’:  Evolution doesn’t occur between two agents (a horse and some grass); rather, evolution occurs across all fields in a system (holistic, interdependent view of change).  As such, we shouldn’t look toward change in the atomistic way but in a ecological/systemic way – change occurs in the interaction between agents (through) not in the agents themselves (objects).  As such, Bateson’s view of evolutionary change (described above) is the way the authors considered emergence when planning the requirements for their new digital media lab.
  • The authors made the classes “laptop required” in the course catalogue as a means to get around the issue of computer maintenance, upkeep, etc. from the university end.
  • The authors abstracted three idea/theories that described their journey toward creating the multimedia labs:  1) change is a complex web that is created through transactional loops of information (feedback); 2) information needed to be treated in Batesonian terms (as news of difference, or differences that make a difference); and 3) change is emergent, not progressive (not teleological); because environment and organism jointly interact context is created in that interaction – that activity (6).
  • What is information that makes a difference?  Well, it is always there; however, the feedback loop doesn’t require it to function until it is required to function – until it can make a difference (7).
  • The authors note that many faculty in the English department worried about two (very common) aspects of a new media pedagogy: 1) do students have the tech chops to do this sort of work; and 2) do students understand new media composition as something more than a functional literacy – how do they understand new media composition as rhetorical and critical?  (14).  The first question was addressed by plugging students into other networks of technological assistance (tech support, web tutorials, etc.).  The second was more difficult.  The newly emergent, wired writing center became one place for students to extend their rhetorical literacy in digital environments.
  • The authors note that deutero-learning (from Bateson: this is learning not in a particular context but about contexts) emerged as a useful way to consider the work they did over the course of their project.  By thinking spatially, rhetorically, and temporally (kairotically) the authors were able to quit thinking teleologically (linearly) and instead concentrate on contextual, relationship-based thinking.

One Response to “Fleckenstein, Johnson, McKinney – A Portable Ecology: Supporting New Media Writing and Laptop-Ready Pedagogy”

  1. Jason

    I know Jackie from a presentation we did for ECWCA a few years ago. Her stuff on writing centers is spectacular. Would love to read this chapter sometime. And thanks for the welcome on my blog. Lots to learn and good people around to teach me! 🙂

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